He insists he can make the Sahara green

With the zeal of a fanatic, a one-time Canadian called Richard Bake, trying to cajole the world into gambling millions on a gigantic plan to grow trees in the desert

MARJORIE EARL December 10 1955

He insists he can make the Sahara green

With the zeal of a fanatic, a one-time Canadian called Richard Bake, trying to cajole the world into gambling millions on a gigantic plan to grow trees in the desert

MARJORIE EARL December 10 1955

He insists he can make the Sahara green

With the zeal of a fanatic, a one-time Canadian called Richard Bake, trying to cajole the world into gambling millions on a gigantic plan to grow trees in the desert


THREE years ago a zealous white-haired visionary and adventurer named Richard St. Barhe Baker who insists that at heart

he is a Canadian although he was born English made a mad dash across the Sahara Desert. With two companions in a battered, heavily laden automobile he crossed the sands from Algiers to Kilimanjaro, a treacherous journey that has taken the lives of many men as daring if not as happily starred as Baker. The French authorities who control about half of the Greater Sahara refused him permission to make the trip. But Baker, without fear, without mishap and without permission, made it anyway.

Baker is a forester, the founder of the international conservation organization known as the Men of the Trees. The treeless desert might seem like an odd place for a forester to be traveling. But Baker is an odd forester. Part man of science, part explorer, part prophet of doom and part mystic he made the trip because he is planning to reclaim the Sahara.

When the Libyan Desert of Alamein fame is tacked on to the Sahara’s vast expanse you have a predominantly stony and sandy wasteland of three and a half million square miles about twenty-five percent of the land area of all Africa. Thousands of years ago, experts believe, it was richly clothed in vegetation. Unless it is re-

clothed, Baker warns, it will continue to devour the fertile soil of Africa at some points at the rate of thirty miles a year. “The real enemies of mankind today are the advancing deserts,” he says, in typically sepulchral accents.

His plan to reclaim the Sahara calls initially for shelter belts of trees to contain the advancing sands, plus the enlargement of existing oases into tree plantations of from ten thousand to one hundred thousand acres. At least six nations share control of the Greater Sahara but, Baker says, complete reclamation is so vast and expensive an undertaking that all nations must co-operate. With due modesty he describes it as “the most staggering project ever contemplated by man.”

It is a project that staggers everybody but Baker, who is obsessed with the conviction that he is cut out to save the world and is blinded to obstacles by the heat of his obsession. In his middle sixties, he has more energy than most men half his age and since the end of the war most of it has been spent on promoting the idea of reclaiming the Sahara.

He made his first move in 1945 with characteristic excitement and lack of foresight. He invited the ambassadors of forty-four countries to lunch at London’s expensive Dorchester Hotel. After thirty-two acceptances had been returned he realized that he had no money to pay for the lunch.

To Baker, money is one of life’s incidentals. His habit is to do what he thinks he must do and worry about paying for it later. On this occasion

he telephoned Lutterworth Press, publishers of five of his twelve books, promised to deliver another one and persuaded them to pick up the tab, charging it against his royalties.

After the diplomats had eaten his lunch they listened politely to his plan and to one of the awesome homilies that stud his speeches, private and public: “If a man loses one-third of his skin,

he dies. If a tree loses

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He Insists He Can Make the Sahara Green


one-third of its bark, it dies. If the earth loses one-third of its tree cover the spring-water table will sink beyond recall and the earth will die.”

For ten years the diplomats have come back each year to Baker’s

luncheon: ambassadors and first secretaries from Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Hungary, talking urgently about soil erosion and desert reclamation with first secretaries and ambassadors from the other side of the Iron Curtain. This establishes Baker as one of the few people in the world able to get East and West working together during the cold war.

"I take no notice of the iron curtains of this world.” he says. "Unless we co-operate it’s death and there’s no use fighting each other over our graves.”

Last year the original thirty-two diplomats had swelled to fifty-five, all of whom listened intently to Baker’s report, of his trip across the Sahara. He was accompanied on the journey by a geologist and a botanist. They satisfied themselves that great forests had once flourished on what is now stony waste. They checked on discoveries of subterranean water supplies which, presumably, could support trees planted in certain areas. They found tribes living precariously on islands of soil, surrounded by encroaching desert. Some tribal chiefs, they reported, had

actually forbidden marriage so that children might not be reared for certain starvation. In certain districts the sand was advancing on crop-growing land at the rate of thirty miles a year.

At Baker’s luncheon this year the diplomats listened to more than dreams and exhortations. Turned practical, Baker told them about the Sahara Reclamation Company which he registered in 1954. Its announced objectives are to plant trees on a large scale, to educate public opinion, to establish and run training institutions for research students, to conduct surveys and to provide technical advice and loans to bodies interested in land reclamation. At present it has only a dribble of money to lend, provided by converts to Baker’s philosophy of doom. This doesn’t worry him: "What we need now is man power; trained foresters willing to study desert reclamation and then to work on Sahara pilot schemes.” He reports that two training units are already in business in France and Austria. He has drawn up blueprints of pilot schemes to be used for testing and to reassure natives and investors.

When pressed Baker can put the aims of the Sahara. Reclamation Company into simpler terms: "We propose to buy land cheaply, reclaim it and resell it at a profit. We propose to issue shares. And we are located in Tangier, an international zone without tax restrictions, so no government can fleece our investors.”

But it is not enough just to attract investors, Baker adds. He hopes to persuade the governments of the world to invest men and money in his company, thus enabling it to fulfill its most important objective: to plant trees on a large scale.

On the face of it, it seems wildly grandiloquent for one man to talk about uniting the world in a fight against the Sahara. But after listening to Baker tell the story of his life and list his formidable achievements, the bemused observer is likely to decide he can. He is a fanatic about trees and has probably been directly and indirectly responsible for planting more of them than any man alive.

The Men of the Trees now has

twenty thousand members in a score of countries, all pledged to plant and protect trees and all behind his scheme to reclaim the Sahara. Men of the Trees call themselves "earth healers.” Their broad objective is to persuade governments to extend tree cover and practice forestry according to their ideas, which are mainly Baker’s.

Privately, at the invitation of governments and on behalf of Men of the Trees, Baker has traveled around the world a dozen or more times (he says he can’t remember how many) sparking tree-planting campaigns; harrying timber concessionaires, national parks’ boards and government officials; opening forestry schools or preventing them from closing; calling meetings, starting press campaigns and always threatening pestilence and plague if man continues to monkey with the delicate balance of nature.

The Priest of the Trees

By lecturing, begging, pleading and warning Baker helped collect nine and a half million dollars to save certain sections of the coastal redwoods of northern California. He presented President Roosevelt with a forestry plan that influenced the planting of a giant shelter belt of trees from the Canadian border to the Panhandle of Texas. A similar plan for Engand was adopted in a modified form after the war by the British Forestry Commission. Baker claims chief responsibility for starting the World Forestry Congress which met for the fourth time last year in Dehra Dun, India. Palestine, New Zealand and Australia are other countries that have reaped benefit from Baker’s missionary zeal.

He is a tall, commanding man with a military bearing and a military mustache decorating a face that is ruddy with health and bright with enthusiasm. His manner, like his voice, is gentle, yet compelling and wherever he goes he attracts hordes of converts to the religion of trees or, as he calls it, "earth healing.”

Baker tells of a typical "conversion”: Not long ago, at the University of Vienna, he was discussing his plan to

reclaim the Sahara. He reported that an Austrian expert on reclamation had agreed to train fifty advanced students to work on the desert pilot scheme but as yet no place had been found to train them. When the lecture ended an Austrian count bolted forward and embraced Baker. "You have found the way to unite East and West,” he said in a voice quivering with emotion. "I have an estate of sixty thousand hectares. It is all yours to do with as you please.”

Like most missionaries Baker accepts and even expects such gifts as the due of his godly work. He has no personal interest in money. When lie runs out of it, and he often does, he leans placidly on his faith. Shortly before he made his trek across the Sahara he was so desperately in need of money that the project was in jeopardy. One morning a letter arrived which said: "I so admire you, your life and the cause for which you are working that 1 am enclosing a small cheque to help you.” The cheque was for one thousand pounds.

But Baker does not sit back and wait for unknown benefactors. He finances his busy life mainly by writing books and articles and by giving lectures and broadcasts. He often telephones his publisher to rattle off the names of influential people who might be converted if they had a free copy of his latest book. The publisher remonstrates, pointing out that this will cost him money. "Never mind that,” says Baker. "Think of the good it will do.”

To do good—according to his own interpretation of the word—-is the object of Baker’s life. That forestry became the means of fulfilling this object is, he says, due to Canada.

A zealot even in his teens, Baker was so moved by a lecture on life in the raw among the Barr colonists of Saskatchewan given by the famed Bishop Lloyd

that he decided to leave his home at Cheltenham, England, in 1909, migrate to Canada and set up a mission church. Baker’s father and grandfather had established a family tradition of mixing forestry and religion. His grandfather, a parson, traveled with his pockets bulging with acorns which he planted in the hedgerows as he passed by, a habit Baker has inherited. Baker always carries seeds in his pockets and wherever he goes he plants trees. When he embarked on his trip across the Sahara, well-wishers in London loaded him with peach stones because he had said in a broadcast that they would germinate in the desert. He carried thousands with him and left a trail of them behind him.

Baker’s father was a forester and nurseryman. He was also a lay preacher and a follower of the American evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, the Billy Graham of the 1890s. He taught his son to bud, graft, and transplant and also to live devoutly and pray often. Baker has since moved far away from the blood and fire of the old-time revivalist to the doctrines of the Persian philosopher Baha’ullah. But the habit of prayer persists. Recently, visiting a friend, Baker noticed that the roses needed pruning. Seizing the shears he strode into the garden. His friend noticed that his lips moved as he worked. ”T always say my prayers

when I’m pruning,” said Baker. "It makes the plants feel better.”

He was broke when he arrived in Canada in 1909. "On hoard ship somebody taught me how to play poker and took all my money,” he recalls. "I got a job on the docks and earned enough to see me through to Saskatoon.” There, he set off in pursuit of his first two ambitions—to find a homestead and to bring religion to the hinterland. "I was a very intense young man,” he says. He found a suitable homestead on Beaver Creek, about twenty miles south of Saskatoon, then persuaded the neighbouring farmers to foregather every Sunday afternoon to sing hymns and listen to him preach.

When the University of Saskatchewan first opened its doors, Baker decided to add some higher learning to the forestry, bee-keeping, blacksmithing and carpentry he had already acquired. But book learning came hard and after two years he gave up to devote himself to forestry. In 1913 he jo.ned a logging camp at Prince Rupert and there he "got the call.” He says now, "It broke my heart to see them cutting those beautiful trees so recklessly. I swore to dedicate my life to stopping it.”

He returned to England to enter a forestry course at Cambridge and those studies were interrupted by World War I—Baker served with the Kng Edward’s Horse, made up of university students from the Dominions. After he was demobilized in 1918 he re-entered Cambridge and graduated at the head of his class. In 1920 he was appointed as a forestry officer in Kenya.

“What Blasted Nonsense!”

Baker spent a total of nine years in Africa, first in Kenya and later in the mahogany forests of Nigeria, both lying directly south of the threatening Sahara.

"I fear I wasn’t popular with the British administration,” Baker says. "I got mad too often at restraints and at the way some of the officers treated the natives.” When Baker is angry a bright pink flush of indignation suffuses his face, his mustache bristles, and his eyes flash. His anger reaches boiling point when he talks about Kenya. "If the natives had been treated with love and understanding there would be no Mau Mau today,” he says. When someone recently suggested that the Mau Mau could be defeated if the Kikuyu understood co - operation, Baker fired back wrathfully: "What blasted nonsense! They live by cooperation! They are an example to the rest of the world !”

As a young forester in Kenya, Baker had one hundred pounds a year for reforestation; his plans—already giantsize—required thousands of men. He decided to try to persuade the natives to stop cutting down trees and plant new ones.

"The Kikuyu, who inhabit the highlands of Kenya, celebrate every occasion with a dance,” Baker relates.

'Why not a dance of the trees?’ I asked myself. I worked for three months preparing for it and finally, on the appointed day, three thousand warriors in full regalia reported for the ceremony. I was amazed. I decided to take a long chance. I told them that other tribes in my territory accused them of being forest destroyers. I said I agreed with the charge. Then, as they muttered angrily and fingered their spears, I exhorted them to remove this stain from their reputation.” Baker won them over and the Kikuyu warriors became the foundation members of the Men of the Trees.

Baker still uses this same technique to secure converts. First he scares them; then, as they bow under the ■weight of their guilt, he invites them to shake it off and follow him to the land of milk and honey. At the conclusion of his lectures today, a stream of penitent citizens invariably moves forward to lay down their three-dollar annual membership to Men of the Trees and promise that henceforth they will plant ten trees a year and do a good deed every day.

'I borrowed the idea of the good deed from the Boy Scout movement and I

put it to good use in Kenya,” Baker says. "One day a group of young warriors reported to me that they had run out of ideas for good deeds. I had some seedlings to be planted so 1 gave each boy a box of fifty. 'One box planted is one good deed done,’ 1 said. The idea caught on among other young men and in this way I got nine million seedlings planted in one year.”

Today, with Baker spurring them on, the Men of the Trees organize huge tree-planting campaignsan example was the campaign to commemorate the Coronation of George VI, which re-

sulted in millions of new trees all over the Commonwealth. But the organization’s most important function is less tangible. Baker has shrewdly converted to his religion of earth healing so many prominent scientists, foresters, landowners, members of parliament and citizens of wealth and power that they can influence a government’s forestry policy almost as readily as they can block a local council wanting to lop an old tree from a roadway.

Baker is surrounded by so many big names that he sometimes gets confused. "Isn’t it wonderful! Now we’ve

got Ike!” he said to a friend a few years ago, shortly after Lord Alexander, then governor-general of Canada, had become international chairman. "It’s not Eisenhower, old boy, it’s Alexander,” the friend reminded him. "Oh yes, to be sure,” said Baker, flourishing his hand vaguely.

Fired by the Colonial Office in 1928, Baker began seriously to promote the growth of the Men of the Trees in England. He greeted unemployment with his habitual optimism, "as a marvelous opportunity to study and travel.”

For ten months he supported himself as a carpenter, helping to build Wembley Stadium until Sir John Chancellor, a Man of the Trees and High Commissioner for Palestine, asked him to start a branch of the organization there and advise on a forestry program.

When he returned to England he accepted an invitation to attend a forestry conference in Washington. This led to the beginning of Baker’s subsidiary career as a writer and lecturer. On arrival in New York he was invited to lunch by a friend. "I

began talking about my life in Africa to a group of his friends,” Baker recalls. “One was a publisher. That afternoon I found myself with a five-hundreddollar advance in my pocket and a contract to deliver a hook in a month. I hired three stenographers (they weren’t so expensive in those days) and worked night and day. I delivered the manuscript, entitled Men of the Trees, and collected another five hundred dollars. I arrived in Washington just in time for my meeting.”

Unshakably convinced that he "can save the world,” Baker is a hard man

to resist. He even became a vegetarian when he decided that over-grazing was one of the reasons for the earth losing its green cover. Therefore, when he describes how he signed up President Hoover as a Man of the Trees, he is entirely believable. The interview was arranged by the British Embassy.

"The President was very cordial,” Baker says. "His first words were 'What can I do for you, Baker?’ I told him promptly that I wanted to study the forests of America and I needed help. He simply picked up the telephone, instructed the Forestry Department to provide transportation and hospitality and wished me a happy journey. Before I left I asked him to father Men of the Trees in America.

" 'Ask me later, Baker, when I’m out of office,’ he said.

'Out of office you’re no use to me, sir,’ I replied, T need you now.’ He joined.”

Baker never wastes time at the bottom. When he finished his two-year survey of American forests—earning pocket money by lecturing—he worked out a forestry plan and took it to Franklin Roosevelt, then governor of New York. "Why me?” Roosevelt asked. Baker’s version of the conversation follows:

"Because I have just spent two years talking to Americans all over this country and I am convinced you will be the next president. I am presenting you with a plan to give jobs to two hundred and fifty thousand unemployed.”

"You couldn’t make it three hundred thousand, could you?” Roosevelt laughed.

Roosevelt also joined Men of the Trees and, after he entered the White House, used Baker’s forestry ideas in providing work for the Civilian Conservation Corps of the depression years.

Baker even claims to have made R. B^. Bennett admit that he made a mistake. "In Canada,” he recalls, "Prime Minister Bennett wouldn’t even listen to me. I told him he ought to stop slashing down the Canadian forests to feed his match factories and that he should follow Roosevelt’s example, but he wasn’t interested. Later, in England, as Lord Bennett, he joined Men of the Trees.

'I never realized how wrong I was. Baker,’ he said to me one day. 'If you really mean it,’ I replied, 'go after Lord Wavell. We need him.’ He did recruit Wavell, too.”

Baker’s passion to reclaim the Sahara, which has engaged him almost exclusively since the end of World War II, seems to be bearing early fruit. The French government recently asked him to be adviser on reclamation and forestry projects in Algeria and Morocco, which lie on the northern boundaries of the Sahara. The Lebanon, with desert problems of its own, has agreed to participate in his plan.

When Baker is extolling his Sahara scheme no barrier seems too high to leap. "Geneva provided the answer,” he said recently to a friend, his eyes alight with missionary zeal, his voice shaking with excitement. "The Geneva conference proved that the nations of the world want to co-operate. The trouble is they don’t know where to begin. I say begin on the Sahara. Divert the money now spent on armaments to wage war on the desert and thus increase the supply of productive land. Let the standing armies of the world do the work !”

Baker makes this suggestion in all seriousness. What is more, at sixty-six, he expects to live to see the Sahara at least partly reclaimed. "It is the dream of my life,” he says with a confident smile, "and my dreams have a way of always coming true.” ★